Review: The Incident Room at Royal Court Studio ****1/2
Between October 1975 and January 1981, fear stalked the streets of towns and cities across Yorkshire and beyond as the serial killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper eluded capture to wreak terrible violence on a series of women.
In all, 13 women’s murders were attributed to Peter Sutcliffe, but many more were also attacked and survived – several of them before he left his first dead victim, Wilma McCann, just yards from the home she shared with her four young children.
So how exactly did Sutcliffe continue to get away with his murderous streak for 1,894 days before he was finally picked up, not by the huge investigative force but accidently by a couple of beat bobbies on patrol?
While hindsight is a marvellous thing, and the development of computers and forensic advances a distinct advantage, the formal investigation has come under the microscope and in for plenty of criticism over the course of almost half-a-century.
And it’s the formal investigation that’s at the heart of The Incident Room, Liverpool theatre company Old Fruit Jar Productions’ gripping and immersive drama which has transferred to the Royal Court Studio after a successful run at the Black-E earlier this year.
It’s a complete, if happy, coincidence that the latest run coincides with the screening of ITV’s terrific The Long Shadow which also revisits that torrid time but puts the emphasis not on Sutcliffe but on his victims and tells their very human stories.
Like The Long Shadow, in The Incident Room we never see Sutcliffe himself – although we do hear the chilling, droning tones of the man dubbed ‘Wearside Jack’ who claimed to be the Ripper and led investigators on a merry dance in the process.
Instead, Olivia Hurst and David Byrne’s script keeps the action tightly in the intensely claustrophobic incident room, set up at Leeds’ Milgarth Police Station and from where operations to try and catch the killer were coordinated.
Above: The Incident Room. Top: Florence King as Sgt Megan Winterburn. Photo by Old Jar Productions.
It’s ruled over with a rod of iron by the bombastic, brutish, blinkered West Yorkshire detective George Oldfield (Luke Seddon), a man straight out of the Life on Mars era of policing who likes to take suspects for a late night ‘little chat’ in disused buildings.
The operation is recalled in flashback by Florence King’s Sgt Megan Winterburn (one of only a handful of female sergeants in the West Yorkshire force at that time) who runs the data-handling side of the investigation, trying to keep track and cross-check mountains of paper index cards, statements, alibis and other bits of evidence.
‘Meg’ has to deal not only with pressurised long hours but also with the institutional and social misogyny of her male peers, from being shouted over or given menial jobs to do to being passed over for promotion to listening to the other detectives dividing the murdered women into ‘innocent’ and not-so-innocent victims.
That most of us know what happened in the end doesn’t stop The Incident Room being a thoroughly engrossing, and at times immersively infuriating theatrical experience as Oldfield and his testosterone-fuelled team dismiss evidence that doesn’t fit their pet theories or clash horns in inter-force rivalry between Bradford and Leeds, and later when the Ripper widens his murderous streak to Moss Side, with Anthony Roberts’ cocky, leather jacket clad Mancunian detective Jack Ridgway.
Above: Megan Winterburn (Florence King) and Maureen Long (Rachel McGrath). Photo by Old Jar Productions.
It's Ridgway who brings a vital piece of evidence to the table and systematically whittles down the potential suspects. But will he be listened to in the febrile atmosphere of the room? Will anyone?
The production, tightly directed and nicely paced by Alex Carr, and with some impressive performances, creates a palpable, simmering sense of time and place.
Christina Rose pops up throughout the play as a female journalist who acts as a voice of the public calling the investigation to account (although the idea of the press sauntering into a police incident room unchallenged seems farfetched. But then it was the 70s). It takes so long to catch the killer that she manages to achieve an entire career arc in the same time.
Her disbelief is echoed by Maureen Long (Rachel McGrath), one of the Ripper’s badly injured survivors whose life is overshadowed by what happened to her and who asks “what’s the point of having police at all?”
But at the end, it’s not the police, or Sutcliffe, but his female victims who are put back centre stage and given the humanity they deserve.